Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: What the Robin Knows and How to be a Better Birder

(C) Young & and Houghton Co., Lovitch & Princeton UP

In the past few weeks, I finished two great works on birding, birds, and connecting with nature.  One involves a push to listen more closely to nature and the other provides the tools for a better scientific understanding of forces that move birds around and affect their interactions with nature. They are an excellent pair of books to use to help reflect and improve how we act and understand birds in the field.

What the Robin Knows advocates for a basic principle of listening and trying to understand the different messages that nature is telling us.  Young proposes many different skills and exercises for improving how we listen to nature and respond to the birds around us.  Finding a listening spot and learning how to listen for the alarms, signals, and communications from birds.

Young provides some great rewards for what knowing and listening to "Bird Language" can bring.  Great insights into nature and amazing lessons that birds can teach us.  Knowing and figuring out how to listening to birds beyond iding a species can yield great rewards.  Earlier this year, knowing bird language helped me and a birding friend find a Great Horned Owl.  Hearing lower-than-usual Junco chips told me something was up and doing a little looking through the canopy revealed an owl!

I can't wait to put more into Young's lesson into practice and improve my observations and listening skills!

Jon Young's Bird Language Website - Link Here

How to Be a Better Birder provides the best scientific background to couple with Young's book.  Lovitch does a great good of outline skills from plant identification, weather observation, and knowing the scientific migration of birds.  From basic skills, good practices, and improving your reading list, Better Birder honestly provides the tools to be a better birder.  It is a delightful example of truth in advertising!

Better Birder for me really outlined some key skills that I felt that I had been missing.  Namely the weather.  On my own and through a few readings, I had started to pick up on the rules of judging and using weather to find and track birds!  I can't wait to start looking at the upcoming winds and storms.

Both books are great reads to helping birders understand being in the field and how to better find and listen to birds.  I can't wait to get out and look at birds with deeper appreciation of all the forces and aspects that make birding so exciting.  

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Evidence of a Raptor Attack

I present the following as a case study in what you might encounter outside when walking around.  First, a very basic list of what I encountered:

Lots of feathers (namely banded black, grey and brown tail feathers)
Bird poop
Unidentifiable Feathers covered in poop
A Dense Cedar Stand

Take a look...

Using a Bird Feather ID book and the US Fish and Wildlife Services Feather Atlas (Link Here) I figured out that the tail feathers belonged to a Cooper's Hawk.  The Black and Grey Banding on the tail feathers identified the feather for me.  So now I am left with a few questions:

What could eat and dispose of a Cooper's Hawk (or like species)?
What enjoys dense stands of trees?
What has kinds of raptors have been seen at Hammonasset Beach State Park in the past few weeks?

I'll start with the easiest question to answer.  Here are a list of all the raptors reported on ebird for Hammo.
Bald Eagle
Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-Shouldered Hawk
Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Great Horned Owl
Snowy Owl
Barred Owl
Northern Harrier
Peregrine Falcon

Given the fact that it was in a dense stand, Hawk or Owl seems more likely.  Merlins, Falcons and Eagles like more open or wet hunting spaces.  The Trees tell me that it is more likely a hawk or owl.  Given the fact also that the prey was itself a bird of prey, this means that tough bird is a work.

So this is a mystery that I cannot solve.  But I think that either a Great Horned or Barred Owl are work.  Both have been seen near the site of the feathers and the tree over the scene was a short but dense tree.  While, I can not be sure, finding the scene was a great insight into parts of the natural world.  I hope to find more mysteries and great questions about the natural world.  I hope you do too!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finding Gulls

The art of Gulling is truly a fine art.  Beautiful grays, whites, and blacks, with yellows, greens (not here on the east coast) to round it off make Gulls a serious challenge.  Along with sharing a similar color scheme, Gulls can also hybridize and find themselves in all parts of the world.  Their success is a testament to the capacity of how they can adapt to a diverse set of environments and even human environments.  After all landfills are great spots to see gulls.

Gulls (the Family Laridae) mainly inhabit the Arctic Circle and have moved around the world from there.  The Arctic Circle is also their breeding grounds and where they nest and hybridize and drive many birders crazy.  I've been working on my own skills with Gull Identification and the best practices I've picked up on are A - Going out a lot and learning how to ID Gulls and B - Reading and looking over Petersons Guide to the Gulls of the Americas by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn (link to here).

The trick to learning about gulls is to take everything as a learning opportunity.  If you are in front of what looks like 100's of Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls, take time to really notice the differences.  Talk them out, write them out, try to get photos that will help you remember the differences.  I'd like to say I am doing this, but I need to remind myself to go through checklists and comparisons in my head.  Practice makes permanent and I definitely want to start being able to better think through my identification and what I am seeing.  While I work on that, enjoy some pictures of a local Iceland Gull!

Iceland Gull taking a bath


Watching the Bay

Comparison Shot with Other Gulls

A Cartoon drawing I made of gulls

2014 Year List: 106
Blue Winged-Teal
Northern Shoveler

Monday, January 20, 2014

Waterfowl, Waterfowl, and more Waterfowl

With cold weather birding comes the invasion and challenge of identifying waterfowl. At first glance, waterfowl seem to be an easier subject than the flighty warblers of spring.  After all, there's no such thing as "Waterfowl Neck".  I've written before about the wonders of waterfowl so I won't go into them here.  Well, I will because I can't help myself.

The waterfowl that breed in the tundra make their way down to the rest of the US during the winter.  While some birds have their favorite spots and refuges, storms and strong winds mean that the possibility of a rarity exists in a variety of spots.  This winter has yielded a variety of types of waterfowl.  I got a Tundra Swan (a lifer) that was hanging out with some Mute Swans and a Trumpeter a few days later.  Which means that I've gotten 3 kinds of swans in as many days.  The only thing left would be a Whooper Swan but that's a real rarity.  As only 2 records of Whoopers in New England according to ebird, I am not going to press my luck.

Still seeing the variety of waterfowl makes me happy.  While they don't bring warmer weather with them, they do provide a great amount of color for the season and excellent practice!  So go out there and enjoy some waterfowl!  Watch the DUCKumentary if you haven't yet!  In the end, get outside and go birding!

4 Canvasbacks in the Quinnipiac River

Some Canada Geese Flying Overhead

Couple of Ring-Necked Ducks and Domesticated Greylag Geese

2014 Year List: 105
Notable Year Birds:
Tundra Swan *Life Bird*
Horned Lark
Iceland Gull
Surf Scoter

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Polar Vortex: Cold Weather Birding

January 2014 is off to a strong start.  So far 90 species with in the state of Connecticut and not much birding done outside the state.  I didn't set any specific goals for this first month, but I was hoping to get at least 100 birds which I had never done before.  According to ebird, my Januarys have shaped out to something like this:

2013: 63 Birds (notable: Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Lapland Longspur, Common Redpoll)
2012: 37 Birds (notable: Redhead, Common Eider, Ruddy Turnstone)
2011: Not really a birder....

So I wanted 2014 to be different.  To be something more serious.  Something that would connect me better to the birding world and the environment of Connecticut.  This doesn't mean that I feel any more the expert.  I feel under even more pressure to see more, notice more, and practice more.  And whatever I miss or can't see, makes me wish I was outside more and birding more.  Partly pride pushes me on.  But for the most part the love of being outside brings me the greatest joy.  I have to keep that front and center.  If I don't, then the joy and benefits of being outside is diminished.  I've had some great experiences out in the field and I have to keep that in mind and at the heart of my outings.

In the meantime, I am going to try to think about feathers.  With this latest polar vortex, I am amazed at the adaptations and survival skills of birds.  Feathers are a truly amazing adaptation.  I am going to try to take some great pictures that really embrace the adaptations birds make to survive the weather.  Until next time...

2014 Year Birds: 91
Notable Additions:
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Monk Parakeet
Bald Eagle
Barred Owl

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: Imperial Dreams

One of only two known clips of the Imperial Woodpecker
(C) Cornell University and Made by William Rhein in 1956

One of my gifts this holiday season was Tim Gallagher's latest book Imperial Dreams.  The book is a voyage into the natural history of the Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis) in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.  For me this book was more than just a travelogue.  It was a journey into a nation and land that seem to be disappearing more and more every day and descending further and further into violence and chaos. Author Tim Gallagher takes on this fierce region, its tough natural history, hardy inhabitants, and current struggles.  The prose balances these well and you can't help but read on and on as Gallagher strikes deeper and deeper into this region.

For me, the birds of Mexico are not only far and distant because of time and space, but also the political and economic troubles make it a difficult journey and the birds distant.  Gallagher's account of his travel this land strikes a good balance between making the reader want to go and climb and explore these ancient mountains and lament the political and crime issues that plaque Mexico.

Does he find the Imperial Woodpecker?  How does Gallagher's quest end?  How does he deal with the dangers of the region?  Pick it up and find out!  It is definitely worth the read and you won't regret following Gallagher and on his journey through the Sierra Madre.

Some Campephilus Woodpeckers in the Peabody Museum's Collection
Sadly, this is how close many of us will come to the these birds...

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Good Start to January

So I set some lofty goals for 2014.  After 5 days, I have seen about 69 birds and I can't believe how strong by start has been.  I've gotten some great birds!  First was some great looks at a local snowy owl that's been showing off blocks from downtown New Haven.  I've had a real wealth of owls this year.  Snowy, Great Horned, Screech, and Barred have all found a place on to my year list.  I feel very lucky to have shared some space with this birds.  Definitely feeling the unicorn effect when it comes to these birds.

To start the year off, I've included some pictures of the Snowy Owl I got to see a few days ago.  The bird gave us great looks and we left it alone after a while.  After walking out onto a great pier and braving the wind, we noticed that the Snowy Owl was no more than 15 feet from the car.  Seeing such a beautiful bird is such an amazing experience.  After enjoying the bird, we quickly packed up and left.  We didn't want to alarm the several gulls and other birds in the harbor to see and then bother the Snowy Owl.

The Owl was hiding right by the parking lot

There's something going on with his eye, any ideas?

Life List: 327 (73 to go!)
CT Year List: 69 (156 to go!)
Goal Birds: None